From Glottopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Pronunciation: []
Ethnologue name: Gaelic, Irish
OLAC name: Irish
Location point:
Family: Indo-European
Official in:
Writing system:
ISO 639-2: gle
ISO 639-3: gle

Irish is a Celtic language spoken in Ireland. It is an official language of the Republic of Ireland and the European Union, and has official recognition in Northern Ireland. It is a required subject for most schoolchildren in the Republic of Ireland, but only a small minority of the country’s population has native competence in the language, most Irish people being native speakers of English.


Irish phonology is characterized by the persistent contrast between velarized and palatalized consonants. Almost all consonants make a phonemic contrast between a velarized (or “broad”) and a palatalized (or “slender”) variant.

Labial Coronal Dorsal Glottal
Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar

Tap                   ɾˠ
Lateral               ɫ̪

The vowels are as follows:

  Front Central Back
Near-close ɪ   ʊ
Mid   ə  
Open-mid ɛ   ɔ
Open a, aː


  • /əi/
  • /əu/
  • /iə/
  • /uə/

Schwa is found only in unstressed syllables.

In the northern (Ulster) and western (Connacht) dialects, stress regularly falls on the first syllable of the word, apart from a few adverbs like anseo ‘here’ and abhaile ‘home(ward)’ where it falls on the second syllable. In the southern (Munster) dialect, stress falls on the second syllable of a word if that syllable contains a long vowel or diphthong. If the second syllable contains a short vowel, but the third syllable contains a long vowel or diphthong, stress falls on the third syllable. If the second syllable contains the vowel /a/ followed by the consonant /x/, and both the first and third syllables contain short vowels, the stress falls on the second syllable. In all other cases (apart from the adverbs like anseo and abhaile mentioned above, and a few other exceptions) the stress falls on the first syllable.

In the northern dialect, long vowels appear only in stressed syllables; they are shortened in unstressed syllables, but do not take on the lax quality of the short vowel phonemes; thus a shortened /iː/ is still a tense [i], not a lax [ɪ].


Irish is an inflecting language. Nouns, which are divided into masculine and feminine genders, are declined for two numbers (singular and plural) and four cases (nominative, genitive, dative, and vocative; the nominative also has accusative function).

Verbs are conjugated for four persons (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and the so-called “autonomous”) and several tenses and moods (in the indicative: present, imperfect, preterite, future, conditional; in the subjunctive: present and imperfect; in the imperative, present). Verbs also have a verbal noun which takes the place of an infinitive and a verbal adjective that functions similarly to a past participle.

The “autonomous” form of a verb is used when the subject is undefined; it can be translated into English with ‘someone’ as the subject, as in léitear ‘someone reads’. It is often used in a passive function (e.g. aithristear an scéal ‘someone tells the story’ or ‘the story is told’), but it is not a passive in form as its argument is a direct object, not a subject.

Finite verb forms are either analytic or synthetic: analytic forms (apart from imperatives) require a following subject pronoun or noun (following because Irish word order is VSO), while with synthetic forms (which only appear in the 1st and 2nd persons, and not always then) a subject pronoun would be ungrammatical. For example, ‘you (singular) praise’ may be rendered as either molann tú (with the analytic form molann followed by the pronoun ) or molair (with the synthetic form of the 2nd person singular), but *molair tú with the synthetic form followed by the pronoun is ungrammatical. It is thus not straightforward whether Irish can be classified as a pro drop language: after synthetic forms, pro drop is obligatory, and after analytic forms, pro drop is prohibited. Unlike the situation in languages like Spanish and Italian, pro drop in Irish is never optional.

Like other Insular Celtic languages, Irish has inflected prepositions, i.e. prepositions fuse with object pronouns to form single words. For example, the preposition le ‘with’ has the following forms when it takes a pronominal object:

  Singular Plural
1st liom ‘with me’ linn ‘with us’
2nd leat ‘with you’ libh ‘with you’
3rd leis ‘with him’
léi ‘with her’
leo ‘with them’


As mentioned above, Irish word order is VSO, as in (1).

(1) Ólann  Seán bainne.
    drinks Seán milk
    ‘Seán drinks milk.’

Complements follow the direct object, as in (2).

(2) D’ól  Seán an  bainne sa     chistín inné.
    drank Séan the milk   in-the kitchen yesterday
    ‘Séan drank the milk in the kitchen yesterday.’

However, object pronouns come at the end of the sentence, following any complements, as in (3).

(3) D’ól  Seán sa     chistín inné      é.
    drank Seán in-the kitchen yesterday it
    ‘Seán drank it in the kitchen yesterday.’

The verb ‘to be’ (whose present indicative analytic form is ) cannot be used with a noun phrase as its predicate. Thus while (4) and (5) are both grammatical, (6) is not.

(4) Tá an  bosca lán.
    is the box   full
    ‘The box is full.’
(5) Tá an  bosca ar an  tábla.
    is the box   on the table
    ‘The box is on the table.’ 
(6) * Tá Máire múinteoir.
      is Máire teacher

Sentences whose predicate is a noun phrase contain no verb at all, but are introduced by the copulative particle is. (Traditional grammars describe is as a verb, but theoretical syntacticians reject this analysis.) If the predicate is indefinite, it precedes the subject, and is separated from it by an agreement particle, as in (7).

(7) Is  múinteoir í   Máire.
    COP teacher   AGR Máire
    ‘Máire is a teacher.’

If the predicate is definite, it follows the subject; the subject is separated from the copulative particle by the agreement particle, as in (8).

(8) Is  í   Máire an  múinteoir
    COP AGR Máire the teacher
    ‘Máire is the teacher.’

Initial mutations

Like all Insular Celtic languages, Irish is characterized by a set of initial mutations that appear in various morphosyntactic environments. Word-initial consonants are affected by either of two mutations, Lenition and Eclipsis, while word-initial vowels may acquire one of the prothetic consonants h, n, or t.


Lenition converts stops and /mˠ mʲ/ into fricatives/approximants, causes /fˠ fʲ/ to disappear, and causes coronals to lose their place of articulation (becoming either glottal or dorsal).

Radical Lenited
pˠ pʲ fˠ fʲ
bˠ bʲ w vʲ
t̪ˠ tʲ h
d̪ˠ dʲ ɣ j
c k ç x
ɟ ɡ j ɣ
fˠ fʲ (deleted)
sˠ ʃ h
mˠ mʲ w vʲ


Eclipsis makes voiceless stops and /fˠ fʲ/ voiced, and converts voiced stops into the corresponding nasals.

Radical Eclipsed
pˠ pʲ bˠ bʲ
bˠ bʲ mˠ mʲ
t̪ˠ tʲ d̪ˠ dʲ
d̪ˠ dʲ n̪ˠ nʲ
c k ɟ ɡ
ɟ ɡ ɲ ŋ
fˠ fʲ w vʲ
REF This article has no reference(s) or source(s).
Please remove this block only when the problem is solved.